Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Whether to Riot - part 3

If violent rebellion on a scale seen in the past is now impractical, what is the way forward? I argue that the struggle must be broadly political and legal, with a powerful strand of active non-violence.

The status of prisoners in society must be elevated to that of ‘citizen’ and we must foster, provoke and force a genuine debate centred upon the place that prisons occupy in the national consciousness. Only when we reach a broad socio-political consensus about imprisonment can lasting change be affected, away from the capricious winds of daily political stupidity. This blog is, partly, one strand in that effort. Achieving the vote is another.

Use of the law has been a rich source of penal change in North America. There exists a vibrant community of jailhouse-lawyers in America which, for historical reasons, is far more developed than in the UK. Nevertheless, British prisoners are becoming far more legally and many significant changes have flowed from this activity. For Lifers, for instance, the whole structure of release has been wrested from the control of politicians and into the hands of the judiciary.

There needs to be a concerted effort to develop, enlarge and better equip the jailhouse-lawyer community. A consistent body of legal challenges to the status quo holds the potential to enforce significant change on the current penal landscape.

Politically, prisoners are the most marginalised of the dispossessed. We are the part of society that is the most subject to State power, surveillance and control whilst, paradoxically, rejected by society.

We must raise our voices, individually and collectively. Changes in the legal framework mean that we have the opportunity to legitimately organise, an opportunity that many prisoners are too afraid to use. This must be challenged; a confidence must be instilled in prisoners that allows us to both admit our wrongdoings whilst still asserting our citizenship. The issue of our having the right to vote is one such avenue. Others include asserting a greater role in the internal processes of prisons, the mechanisms that rule our daily lives. The habits of passivity must be overcome, both for prisoners to gain a voice and for us to become full citizens.

We must take advantage of new means of communication to confront the wider society. Why am I the only prisoner-blogger? What trepidation restrains the others? Only by challenging stereotypes, only by informing the public about the realities of the criminal justice system, can a broader shift in attitudes be fostered.

Ultimately, the balance of power within prisons is a daily dialectic. As Arendt explained, whilst the State may have the force, power rests with the people. Prison only replicates it's daily routines and existence because of the cooperation of prisoners.

This cooperation can be withdrawn. It is my contention that if legal and political means fail to bring change, then prisoners have the final option of using the strategy of active non¬violence. To steal from Gandhi, all that is needed for prisoners to refuse to cooperate and the whole edifice crumbles.

We don't need to riot. We prisoners have to accept our dirty little secret; that the prison system only works because we cooperate in its daily existence. The power for change rests with us.


  1. It might be far easier to make your case politically, and therefore allow a smoother course legally, if you can persuade at least a proportion of the free population that such changes will assist in rehabilitation. That is a benefit they can far more easily understand than the concepts relating to prisoner rights so carefully detailed over the course of many posts in this blog.

    Reading this blog has persuaded me of both the moral case for expansion of prisoner rights (I am not always in agreement on precise details, but in practice pretty close) and of the benefit to wider society of improving the standing of prisoners. The latter will always carry more weight in that wider world.

  2. @Richard

    I had a very revealing conversation with a friend of mine over whether the point of prison was punishment or rehabilitation and it took us a solid 25 mins to realize that we meant different things by the term. While I meant anything that worked to reduce recidivism, he just meant some sort of well-meaning hoody hugging that he automatically assumed would never work.

    The word "rehabilitation" seems to have become linked in the public psyche with failure and waste of funds.

    While I agree we need to convince people that giving prisoners greater access to the law would aid rehabilitation, I think we need to convince people that is a good thing first!

  3. @wigarse

    Yes. The r-word has been discredited - because prisons conspicuously fail to do it yet go on hollowly saying it’s their raison d’ĂȘtre. If we mean by it an imprisoned person coming back into the world with a habit of taking responsibility for him/herself and a disposition to respect the rights, property, etc of others, then prisons must urge and require their guests to act like citizens in their daily lives in captivity – a rigorous matter of rights and responsibilities, not hoodie-hugging. To treat them as they do, with vindictive disdain, is no way to engender personal or social responsibility, nor to give them a sense of the best they could be. Society has a duty to itself to think this through rigorously, (this isn’t just a matter for Ben and his kind). If the system is breeding angry social exiles, it is because it is worse than no good. What Ben’s proposing here can only have remedial value. In any case, human rights are inalienable. Let’s start from that premise.

  4. Agree with Charles. I hae just visited prison and heard the person I visit say 'since I came to prison I have been introduced to lying, dishonesty, deviousness and cheating'. He has learned this from staff and prisoners - what a shambles - this person would not have lied, cheated or been dishonest before he went in!!
    What a wonderful example of 'rehabilitation'!

  5. I'm sorry this only has the thinnest link to your current blog topic but something just dawned on me.

    If her majesty insists on keeping you at her pleasure then why can't they let you go into Young Offender Institutes and talk to them about non-violent conflict resolution?

    Or am I employing more common sense than the Prison System jobs-worth's currently posses? :P